Pirzad: The “American nuclear holocaust” that no one knew about

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Pat Hoover’s involvement with Submissions for Social Responsibility when the correct organization is Physicians for Social Responsibility. Further insight has also made it clear that Hanford was a plutonium-specific nuclear production facility.

It was the year 1990 when Pat Hoover found herself hopeless and weak in a Yachats, Oregon, hospital bed for seven days straight. She had fallen ill to what doctors called “a mystery sickness” – something Hoover had heard for what seemed like the thousandth time.

Having lost 50 pounds in 30 days, Hoover was mindlessly watching a public broadcast program when they began talking about the area she grew up around, Hanford in southeast Washington state. Hanford was one of the numerous nuclear production sites around the U.S. that had been active since the 1940s.

Hoover watched intently. The T.V. show followed an epidemiologist from the Center for Disease Control as he toured the tri-city area around the Hanford reservation site to survey the local people.

“It was just astounding the number of them who had miscarriages, how many of their loved ones had died from cancer,” Hoover said. “It was shocking and it was this ‘Aha!’ moment for me. I finally had an explanation: I was exposed to radiation my whole childhood, my whole life, just like the people I was watching on the screen. I was 43 years old then and had been living a very medicalized life since birth.”

Hoover is a “downwinder,” her health affected by plutonium production in Washington. Other Downwinders are those who experienced fallout, some from actual nuclear testing in either Nevada, Arizona or Utah. The exposure to radiation has caused ailments in Hoover, including tumors in both the throat and brain and an inability to reproduce.

The entire topic of Downwinders was new to me until just recently when I found out that last Jan. 27, is in fact National Downwinders Day – a day that the U.S. Senate unanimously voted for in 2011 to honor those directly affected by the American nuclear program.

When I learned this information, I knew something was not right. I thought, that’s it? They get a day? I’ve been involved with both campus and community groups that actively fight the presence of atomic weaponry in the world, so hearing about Downwinders Day was both unsettling and frustrating for me.

Instead of publicly taking responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of deaths and cases of cancer and miscarriages it has caused, compensating the people accordingly for their medical bills or even just outwardly admitting to the fact, the U.S. government has assigned the people whose lives they’ve ruined a calendar day.

America’s disturbing history with nuclear weapons dates back to 1945 when the first atomic bomb was tested. This was during the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, fighting to become the world’s most powerful nation.

According to Hoover, who spoke specifically on Hanford, the American people were never told exact details about the nuclear production that was occurring, which is why so many people stayed in the affected areas where there were incredible amounts of radioactive fallout.

“This was all a huge government secret,” Hoover said. “Of course, my mother and father had no idea that all of these thousands and thousands of curies of radiation were being emitted from this reservation.”

Reports by the National Cancer Institute indicate that the most harmful substance released from making plutonium was Iodine-131, which collects in the thyroid gland. Both the Cancer Institute and Hoover explained how Iodine-131, or I-131, makes its way into the bodies of the American people usually through three pathways: in water, the air and the food chain.

Babies were poisoned from drinking their mother’s milk. Kids were exposed to the I-131 by swimming in nearby waters. And others received the toxins by eating radioactive fish or other animal products, since animals were taking in the harmful debris as well.

With concentrated amounts of thyroid disease and cancer sprouting up around the country, long-time activist Annette Rose learned about the health issues downwinders in Utah experienced from nuclear testing. Rose worked alongside peace organizations to both protest U.S. nuclear activity and to get aid for the downwinders of Southeast Utah.

“When I moved to Utah in the late ‘80s, I noticed mostly in the southern regions how there were a lot of children suffering from leukemia since radiation will affect the bone marrow,” Rose said. “Most of the people were Mormon and very well-behaved, so they did whatever their government told them and whatever their church told them. When news came out about the nuclear testing, I think what shocked them the most was that the government lied to them about the dangers of the fallout.”

Like many other downwinders, Hoover hadn’t discovered the truth about Hanford and the nuclear activity going on so close to where she grew up until that day 26 years ago on the Oregon Coast. Since then, Hoover has joined the widespread Downwinder effort seeking compensation from the U.S. government for the medical trauma she continues to endure. She has filed a number of lawsuits through the years, but only one has yet to be rejected mostly because of the tumor found in her brain in 2005.

“They’re going to find a reason to dismiss me just like everyone else and that’s hard to accept,” Hoover said. “The knowledge that I was basically put on the frontlines of the Cold War back in the ‘40s and ‘50s without my knowledge or my permission – once I found out that in all probability that the problems I myself and that my family and relatives and my neighbors were having was because we were poisoned by the government – is hard to accept because I can never un-think it. I am living cell-evidence of America’s nuclear holocaust and I can’t take that away.”

When I discussed the Jan. 27 national holiday with both Rose and Hoover, their feelings mirrored mine. Hoover even pointed out that the downwinders being honored are actually only the workers of the nuclear plant facilities – those who were exposed to radiation from the inside.

Instead of feeling hostile towards the U.S. government, Rose and Hoover have learned to accept what happened in the past and to continue to live their lives actively. Today, at 73 years old, Rose continues to fight for a non-proliferated world with the Eugene-based Beyond War Northwest group as an outreach coordinator.

Hoover has also continued her fight with her involvement in Eugene’s Women’s Action for New Directions, the Community Alliance of Lane County and Physicians for Social Responsibility in Portland.

“It’s hard and it can be deceiving at times, but there are these small victories and that’s what activism is about,” Hoover said. “My message to young people is to always be questioning the government and its policies and keep track of what’s happening that doesn’t meet your values for the life you want to live. Continue the struggle. Always question what is being said and done.”

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Negina Pirzad

Negina Pirzad